Hammer time over
Drugs and booze almost killed Trent Reznor, so he had to give them up to survive in rock'n'roll.
By Jo Roberts for Sydney Morning Herald on August 5, 2005
He'd been "gone" six years. Trent Reznor was worried that perhaps this time, on the release of his latest Nine Inch Nails album, With Teeth, he'd been gone too long.
Not that the Nine Inch Nails mastermind had ever hurried to release albums in the past. It was five years between the 1989 NIN debut, Pretty Hate Machine, and the breakthrough follow-up, 1994's The Downward Spiral.
It was then another five years until America's king of industrial angst released the sprawling double album, The Fragile. Since then, for much of the time, Reznor has been occupied with a grander plan than making a new record - how to stay alive.
"If I drink again I'll probably die," he says. "And I don't want to die."
Drugs are also off the menu for Reznor since a near-fatal heroin overdose in London four years ago while touring The Fragile, the tour that last brought Nine Inch Nails to Australia, in 2000.
Reznor completed a rehab program after touring The Downward Spiral, but relapsed during the recording of The Fragile. Given his previous two Australian tours were to promote those two albums, he has little to say about those tours when they're mentioned.
"How were we? I have no recollection of being there," he says, deadpan. Really?
"No, I'm kidding," he says. "Kind of serious, kind of kidding."
What he remembers of the 1995 tour was the constant rain. My strongest memory was of a crazed Reznor flinging equipment - and bandmates - around the stage at Melbourne's Olympic Park, in a show that left a damage bill reportedly in excess of 0,000 and memories of a brilliant yet apocalyptic gig.
"Ah, yes, yes," he says, seemingly preferring the whole business wasn't mentioned.
Now Reznor is back on the road touring his new NIN album, With Teeth. It's a tour he admits is different from previous ones. He has a new band: his previous drummer Jerome Dillon, plus newcomers, guitarist Aaron North of the Icarus Line fame, bass player Jeordie White (Marilyn Manson) and keyboardist Alessandro Cortini.
He also has a new approach.
"Touring in the past, the show was just something you had to do to get to the after-show," Reznor says.
"And now, the day revolves around the show. It's a different mindset. You know, the rest of the guys in the band aren't sober. They're wild men in their own ways, and that leads to the isolation factor. But I'm not feeling particularly bad about it and I'm doing everything I can to take care of myself."
These days for Reznor it's no drink, no drugs, "nothing that's mood altering". He admits he felt "utterly panicked" before starting the tour in March.
"We'd been away a long time, but also I would get panic attacks before we'd play," he says.
"I was just praying to God that wasn't just some hot-wired thing that was in my brain, and four years of sobriety were in jeopardy 10 minutes before the first show."
Reznor spent a lot of his time "away", as he calls it, figuring out how to survive. Then came the time to work out whether he should return to music. Was there anything to return to? Did people still care? Did he have anything left to say?
He found it a frightening time.
"Absolutely," he says. "That five-year break went from hoping I can stay alive as a priority to, far down the list, wondering if I had a career left, because I really was at the end.
"But when it got time to really test the waters and see if I could write and see if there was anything left to say, the record kind of fell out of my headfairly quickly.
"And I was so inspired by the process and excited about it, I was like, 'OK, let's see what happens.'
"I don't know if anyone else in the world cares but I think I've made a really good record and I'm excited about playing it live."
People did care. With Teeth debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. The initial British and American gigs in its support "sold out in, like, five minutes", Reznor says.
Hundreds of fans downloaded a special file prepared by Reznor of the first single, The Hand That Feeds, from the Nine Inch Nails website to remix it at Reznor's invitation.
The remix experiment went so well, Reznor has put another song off the album, Only, on the website for remix.
"It's been one pleasant surprise after another," he says. "I would never - and I'm not saying this to be humble - I would never have imagined it would debut at the top of the charts in the States. I can't believe it, y'know?"
Reznor wrote With Teeth over six months from the start of last year. He made himself write two songs every 10 days, then recorded quickly.
"It didn't really fight me at any stage of the process," he says. "It was by far the quickest I've ever done anything."
Reznor played everything on the album except drums. For those he was aided by Foo Fighter Dave Grohl - "it was a really pleasant experience involving him" - and his touring drummer, Dillon.
In the studio, Reznor resisted the urge to tinker as much as he had in the past, creating what he considers the "least produced" Nine Inch Nails album. Unlike The Fragile, With Teeth was never going to be another double-record opus.
"No, I kind of started this [recording] feeling I wanted to make a digestible, kind of classic album-length record," he says.
"Digestible" is a surprising word to hear Reznor use to describe his own music.
"True," he says. "I think the thing I've always tried to do is - and I didn't plan it, it just started to come out that way - is try to to make challenging music that flirts with accessibility.
I like having something that has either a subversive message or is sonically challenging, but there's something about it, there's enough that can hook into you, that you want to give it another chance and it reveals itself over time.
"I think it's easy to make impenetrable music and hide behind that. Making noise is easy, making stuff people understand is an easy thing to do. Making a pop song is a f---ing hard thing to do and making one that's not idiotic is even harder.
"I used to think 'pop' was a bad word. The reality is I grew up in the middle of nowhere [rural Pennsylvania] with 18 years of pop music pumped into my head.
I appreciate choruses and hooks."
Reznor moved to Los Angeles from his isolated New Orleans home as he started working on I. "I felt like I needed to be around my peers, I needed to get more hands-on,"
he says of the move, which seems to be agreeing with him; he has even taken to mountain-bike riding.
"It feels fresh, it's a new view out my window and it's a new routine I can establish."
Reznor gained another "new view" when the drug and alcohol haze cleared and he realised he didn't have as much money as he thought, which led to a civil trial between him and his former manager, John Malm. Reznor was subsequently awarded $US2.95 million (.89 million) in damages.
"That's been a highly unpleasant situation for a number of reasons; mainly it's just a lot of negative energy, and someone who was your best friend for longer than anyone in your life, you find out has no problem lying for money," he says.
"But the point of it is, I've wound up in a place where I feel I've made a lot of necessary changes and I like myself again, and I really feel like things couldn't be better."
Lyrically, it sounds as if Reznor is still grappling with his place in the world. With Teeth oozes with the rage, yearning and sense of isolation fans expect from Nine Inch Nails records.
It sounds like the 40-year-old still has a few issues with the world.
"I'm workin' it out," he says. "They're not all done yet. My odds of survival now are greater than they have been for quite some time."
As also evidenced on NIN albums, Reznor's battle with depression is no secret, but these days he prefers professional help to self-medication.
"My doctor says, 'You've got one of the hardest ones to treat because it's not bipolar, it's not up and down, you're always just about a quart low in the mood department,"' Reznor says.
"I'm aware of it and I'm dealing with it. This time around it was [doing] everything I can do to feel better about myself; through therapy and working at it and identifying behaviour and seeing that, I know
I can push myself down certain paths and just being aware of it and learning about it."
One thing Reznor hasn't lost is his fire. This year, he cancelled a Nine Inch Nails performance of The Hand That Feeds on the MTV Awards because MTV forbade him to have a picture of George Bush on the stage.
He is still seething.
"I can't f---in' believe ... ! You know, it wasn't him turning into Satan or anything - he already IS that - but literally, you can't have a picture of your f---in' president behind you onstage."
Given the song is such a clear denouncement of Bush and the Iraq war, perhaps MTV suspected Reznor might, er, do something to the picture?
"Well, whatever it is, then they can get some nice tame predictable arse-kissing band that'll do what [MTV] wants. MTV can't do less for me, let's put it that way. I'm fine without them. There's plenty of Green Days that want to put their cock in their mouth."